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American air hostess' Darjeeling home coming

india Updated: Oct 19, 2011 21:50 IST
Amitava Banerjee
Amitava Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Amitava Banerjee

It was a homecoming for the former Pan Am air hostess. Dressed in a Chuba (Tibetan dress) gifted to her, the 75 year old returned back to the place closest to her heart- Central School for Tibetans (CST), Darjeeling.

In 1960 Marleane Stella Mitchell was working as an air hostess in Pan Am. "The director of Tim Dooley Foundation asked me to come down to India to help with the Tibetan kids who were fleeing Tibet, escaping the Red Chinese atrocities. Sponsored by the Dooley Foundation I along with my friend Marge Burgy took leave and flew down to Delhi" said Mitchell, talking to HT.

In Delhi a fellow American asked them to visit Darjeeling to help the Tibetans. On arriving at Darjeeling the duo first visited Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. "The Centre told us that it was Lhawank Tenduk Pulger who needed help with the Tibetan kids fleeing Tibet" stated Mitchell.

Thus began Mitchell’s tryst with the CST. "There were 100 children then and many more pouring in from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh. Our main objective was to keep the children alive through the severe winters," stated Mitchelle.

There were three Tibetan teachers, Pulger the Principal along with Mitchell, her friend Marge, while other town’s folk helped voluntarily. "Immediately after HH The Dalai Lama and his followers left Tibet for India, the Tibetan kids started arriving. We had to look after the kids, clean them, and teach them. I even started a knitting class for the girls," reminisced Norzin Norbu, a volunteer in 1960.

The building in which they were housed (present CST) was an abandoned barrack of the North Bengal Mountain Rifle. The Central Relief Committee, Delhi had requested Pulger to organize the rehabilitation of the children. Pulger, an eminent citizen of the town later went on to become the Principal of the school.

Norbu immediately developed a strong bond with Mitchelle, which continues even to this day. "The kids used to call Mitchelle - Gen Lhamola (Goddess Teacher in Tibetan) and her friend Marge - Gen Amchila (Nurse in Tibetan). Mitchelle used to teach English. Together we used to sing to the kids, tell then stories, go for picnics, trying to make them feel at home,” said 78-year-old Norbu.

After 2 months of joining Marge returned, while Mitchelle returned back to the USA after 4 months. However Mitchelle returned back to the CST, Darjeeling every year during her vacations.

"I used to collect money from friends, relatives, colleagues. I used to ask the CST as to what they require and on my way to Darjeeling I used to shop and arrive with the goods. The musical instruments for the music classes were bought from Hong Kong during one of my trips," said Mitchelle.

The music teacher had gifted her a Chuba (traditional Tibetan dress,) 50 years ago, which Mitchelle proudly wore to the Golden Jubilee functions of the CST in Darjeeling on Wednesday. "The last I had visited was 30 years ago. But Norbu had paid me a visit in the United States,” said Mitchelle. She is at present working with the Delta Airlines, USA.

"It has been a home coming for me and a great honour to be present for the golden jubilee celebrations. I feel that when the heart and head together the beautiful experiences are everlasting. My association with the CST has profoundly affected my entire life and attitude towards life (sic)," said Mitchelle holding the hands of her friend Norbu.